U.S. Forest Service outfitting permits and BLM special use permits—how the system works

Colorado outfitting businesses for sale with U.S. Forest Service special use permits

The subject of U.S. Forest Service outfitting permits almost always comes up when an outfitting business is for sale. It’s a complicated subject, so pay attention. Basically, the concept is this—the Forest Service, or USFS, knows that not everybody is capable of putting their gear on a string of packhorses and setting up a camp in the mountains for a week-long hunt. That’s what outfitters are for.

The government owns the asset, which is the millions of acres of national forest across the country. They issue permits to certain persons to conduct outfitting activities on USFS lands. Often the question is posed to me, “Well, can’t I just apply for a permit in an area that isn’t being used?” and the answer is, “You’re way too late in the game, buddy.” It is an absolute rarity if the Forest Service puts out a prospectus asking for outfitters to bid on an area that is not currently being used by an outfitter. I’m not going to say that it never happens—because I have seen it happen—but it is very rare.

If you want to outfit on National Forest lands, you need an operating permit, and pretty much the only way to get one is to buy an existing business. The Forest Service will tell you that the permits aren’t for sale, that as a buyer, you’re buying the business, the bookings, client list, saddles and tack, equipment, etc., and the permit goes along with it.

Everybody knows that this is nonsense. Many guys have their own saddles, tack, and tents, and they have a bunch of friends and clients that they can book the second they have the permit in their hands. The permit is the key to buying an outfitting business.

How are service days calculated?

U.S. Forest Service permits are allocated on the basis of “service days”, or “user days”. Let me explain. If you bring a party of four hunters into the mountains for a 7-day elk hunt, you’re using 28 service days. If you’re buying a business that has 160 service days, on that basis you can calculate that you’ll be able to outfit 20-25 hunters a year. It can get down to the point of basically calculating fractions of days. For example, when I was leading trail rides in Marble, we had a big meadow leased that provided us with a nice 1-hour ride. If someone booked a 2-hour ride, we could take them through the meadow for an hour and then onto national forest for an hour, and I would calculate that we used .5 service days per person.  Yes, indeed, if we took someone onto USFS lands for only one hour, it counted as a service day. So you get careful about how you book your activities, don’t you?

Some ranger districts calculate service days differently than others. One of the businesses I have listed calculates drop camp days differently than I did. Their logic is this—“I lead a group of four guys into a camp on Day 1, they hunt 5 days, and I pack them out on Day 7. I’ve only guided them for two days—in and out. The rest of the time, they’re on their own. I’m not guiding them. So I’ve used only 8 service days.” Apparently that flies in their ranger district, but where I outfitted in the Sopris Ranger District, we had to calculate each day a person was in camp against our service days, so that 4-man group would use up 28 service days for a week-long drop camp hunt. It’s important to get these issues clear before buying a business.

How long is the lease on Forest Service property?

An outfitting permit is generally issued for perpetuity, with some important exceptions. No matter who you are, when you first buy an outfitting business, your permit will be issued on a temporary status until you prove yourself as an outfitter. After a two-year or three-year probationary period, the permit will go into priority status.

Outfitting permits are generally issued on 5- to 10-year cycles, after which there will be a “scoping process” to re-evaluate how the public is being served by outfitters, usage patterns in the forest, numbers of visitors in the forest, etc. At that time, the government might decide your service days need to be trimmed back, or they might decide to allocate more days to you for a new camp in the next basin over, for example.

I’ve seen it work both ways. When I was outfitting, they took away one of my best camps because it was being used “by the public”. In actuality, it was a group of illegal outfitters who had gotten started using that location while the previous outfitter had been running the business into the ground. While the cat’s away, the mice will play. Imagine my frustration at having a great hunting camp location taken away by a group of dirty, nasty scumbuckets from Kansas and Oklahoma who had literally threatened my life so that they could conduct illegal hunts on my former permit area.

On the other hand, I had a great idea to conduct a new and different type of activity on National Forest lands, and they awarded me new user days to do it. I also went over my service days for summer horseback rides, and I reported the overage to the local office, and they considered letting me have more service days as a result. So, the bottom line is, it’s possible to get more service days if you can demonstrate a need and a use for them, but it’s also possible to lose service days. They’re not carved in stone.

Do I have an exclusive right to my outfitting area?

Yes and no. To avoid conflict between outfitters, the USFS rarely issues competing permits in the same area, but there can be an overlap from time to time. For example, I had a permit to use the camp in Hawk Creek above Redstone for first and second rifle seasons in October, but another outfitter had the right to use the same camp for muzzleloader season. Funny, huh? There may be permits for several different groups to use the same area for wildly different things.

In my former permit area, for example, I had an exclusive for hunting, horseback riding, and pack trips, with a couple of minor overlaps. However, Outward Bound had a permit to lead city kids on backpacking trips through my permit area; the Aspen School District led a group of 8th-graders through my permit area on a backpacking trip that usually coincided with the first day of muzzleloader season; and another outfitter had a permit for a traveling pack trip through my permit area. While your permit for outfitting hunts and pack trips may be exclusive, you may also have to share with other permittees.

Note to outfitters—the best defense is a good offense. If you’ve applied for service days to outfit day hikes, bird-watching, and nature walks, then you can both expand your business and prevent a conflict with another outfitter that may not share your values about hunting and horses. The Forest Service may determine that there’s a demand for such services, and if you don’t offer them, they may decide to award a permit to someone who will.

Who supervises outfitters operating on National Forest lands?

Each ranger district has an outfitter administrator, and though you would think they do things the same in every forest, they don’t. The regulations are different in each forest. For example, I outfitted in a wilderness area, and if I left even a sawbuck standing, I would get in trouble. A horse corral? NEVER. Yet my Strawberry Creek Outfitters listing has a nice horse corral, which makes operating a camp a great deal easier, plus permanent tent posts that makes setting up camp a snap. I had to take everything down every year.

A forest ranger will come visit your camp and evaluate how you’re doing things. They give you a list of how they want things done, and it’s right on your permit. Some big issues are that you can’t tie horses to live trees so that they eat the bark away and kill the trees; you can’t leave any trash behind; latrines must be dug and covered according to certain rules; you have to use weed-free horse feed. Priority status outfitters are given 40 points at the start of each outfitting season, kind of like a driver’s license. Temporary status outfitters are given 20 points. If they come into camp and you’ve got trash strewn around and your horses are standing there chewing up several live trees, you might get issued a citation for 5 points. At 20 points, they start proceedings to determine whether you should lose your permits.

Now, I like to run a tight ship and keep things very neat and clean. In 8 years of running an outfitting business with 1,100 service days (which is a lot), I was docked 2 points. Once I was a week late filing my user day report and that cost me a point. The second time I had some guys in a drop camp, and they had dropped some trash on the trail on their way out from camp. Of course, none of my staff was in the camp, so we had no control of the situation, but the rangers checked the camp and docked us a point.
I do know of outfitters who have lost their permits because of flagrant violations. We’ve all heard those stories of “the outfitter from hell”, and those are the guys that lose their permits. If you run a good business and pay attention to detail, there’s very little chance of losing your permits. If you run a sloppy business with little supervision over your poorly trained, underpaid staff, well, you’re probably going to get called into the local ranger district office to look at some pictures of your mess and read some letters of complaint from the public.

You may think that the public doesn’t really pay attention to what’s going on, but I remember when I was outfitting and another outfitter had an unusual permit to pass through my permit area on a traveling summer pack trip. The wranglers on this group didn’t do a good job and the outfitter wasn’t along on this trip. The wranglers routinely led a group of 10 guests on horseback off the trail through hip-deep stands of beautiful wildflowers, trampling the beautiful wildflowers, and by the time they got out of the mountains, there were 8 letters of complaint at the local ranger district office.

Like it or not, the relationship you have with the U.S. Forest Service has a lot to do with the person they’ve appointed as outfitter administrator. If your outfitter administrator is a local kid who grew up on a ranch, worked a couple seasons as a hunting guide, knows how to throw a good double diamond hitch, is scouting out a location for his next archery mule deer hunt, and has two or three horses of his own, you’ll probably get along just fine. If your outfitter administrator hails from Connecticut, is a vegetarian, wears a stud in his ear, and is secretly a member of the group trying to re-introduce wolves into Colorado, your relationship with the Forest Service is going to be a lot tougher. The good news is that everyone has a boss, and if you have a real problem, you can go up the ladder and escalate things. Forest Service employees are politically sensitive creatures, and if your complaints are legitimate, they will be heard, even if it means writing your Congressman.

What does my lease, or permit, cost?

You pay 3% of your gross sales of activities conducted on USFS property to the government. If you guide a fly-fishing trip on a private pond, for example, you don’t owe the government. If you have a private lease for mule deer hunting, you don’t owe the USFS. If you take a group of five people on a four-day pack trip on USFS land, you owe 3% of the gross to the federal treasury.

Personally, I tacked it on to the top of the bill—I didn’t deduct from my gross sales. If an elk hunt was $3,000, for example, I billed my clients $3,090, telling them that they were paying a 3% use fee to the government. I never had a complaint. People understand this. The only complaint I got was from the USFS. They said they wanted 3% of $3,090, not 3% of $3,000. I said, “Then you do the math.” If you think about it, it’s a 6% difference in your NET PROFIT. That can be the difference between scraping by and going on vacation.

What’s the difference between USFS and BLM permits?

BLM permits are very similar to USFS permits, except you’re dealing with a different federal agency with its own set of rules. Instead of allocating service days, the BLM typically allows you to guide or outfit a certain number of people. For example, instead of allocating 160 service days, they might say you can outfit 25 people. It makes sense to me. Some businesses will have both BLM and USFS permits, and sometimes the agencies are officed in the same building and have a common permit administrator, which makes it easier to deal with both agencies.

How do I get a Colorado outfitter’s license?

Colorado’s Department of Regulatory Agencies is the supervising entity over outfitters in the state. The requirements for licensure are pretty basic—you have to get liability insurance for a minimum of $350,000; provide a $10,000 performance bond (which costs you typically $100); have no felonies on your record; provide proof of current First Aid and CPR training; and demonstrate a land base from which to operate.

When you buy an existing business with a USFS permit, the Forest Service makes you go through a vetting process whereby you have to write a business plan and demonstrate financial capability to operate the business. Then they want to tell you how to do things. If there’s a local class by the community college on how to conduct “Leave No Trace” outfitting expeditions in the high country, it would be a very good idea to take it. That way you know what they want and you won’t be surprised by their regulations.


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Gary Hubbell Ranch Real Estate Broker

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